Global Investing

Ukraine and the IMF: a sense of deja vu

The West has just agreed to stump up a load of cash for Ukraine but there is a distinct sense of deja vu around it all.

Let’s face it – Ukraine’s track record on how it manages ts economy and foreign affairs isn’t great. This is the third aid programme Kiev has signed with the International Monetary Fund in a decade and two of them have failed. The IMF has its fingers crossed that this one will not go the way of the past two. Reza Moghadam, the IMF’s top European official, tells Reuters in an interview:

They seem to be committed, they seem to own this reform programme and in that sense I am optimistic

Indeed, Ukraine’s new government has taken some brave and politically unpopular  steps, allowing the currency to depreciate and announcing plans to cut gas subsidies that amount to almost a tenth of its annual GDP, according to IMF data. (Here’s a piece from Breaking Views on the shocking energy waste in Ukraine).

But there’s a long road ahead, says Luis Costa, head of CEEMEA strategy at Citi.  According to Costa:

Who shivers if Russia cuts off the gas?

Markets are fretting about the prospect of western sanctions on Russia but Europeans will also suffer heavily from any retaliatory trade embargoes from Moscow which supplies roughly a third of the continent’s gas needs  – 130 billion cubic metres in 2012.

After all, memories are still fresh of winter 2009 when Russia cut off gas exports through Ukraine because of Kiev’s failure to pay bills on time.  ING Bank analysts have put together a table showing which countries could be hardest hit if the Kremlin indeed turns off the taps.

So while Hungary and Slovakia depend on Moscow for over a third of their energy,  Germany imported less than 10 percent of its needs  from Russia while Ireland, Spain and the United Kingdom received none at all in 2012, ING’s graphic shows.  So while the main impetus for the sanctions comes from the G7 group of rich countries,  it is central and Eastern Europe who will be in the firing line.

Ukraine aid may pay off for Kremlin

Ukraine said today it was issuing a $3 billion in two-year Eurobonds at a yield of 5 percent in what seems to the start of a bailout deal with Russia. That sounds like a good deal for Kiev — its Eurobond maturing next year is trading at at a yield of 8 percent and it could not reasonably expect to tap bond markets for less than that. In addition,  Ukraine is also  getting a gas price discount from Russia that will provide an annual saving of $2.6 billion or so.

But what about Russia? Whether the bailout was motivated by “brotherly love” as Putin claims or by geo-politics, it sounds like a rotten deal for Moscow. The credit will earn it 5 percent on what is at best a risky investment. What’s more the money will come out of its rainy day fund which had been earmarked to cover future pension deficits. State gas company Gazprom will have to stomach a 30 percent price cut, which according to Barclays analysts is “a reminder of the risks of Gazprom’s quasi-sovereign status.”

But there could be positives.

Putin is clearly playing a long game that aims not only at giving the Kremlin tighter political control over Ukraine but also to bring it back into the Russian gas sales orbit and eventually create a bigger trade bloc encompassing Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, says Christopher Granville, managing director of consultancy Trusted Sources in London.

Ukraine’s $58 billion problem

Ukrainian officials were at pains to reassure investors last week that no debt default was in the offing. But people familiar with the numbers will find it hard to believe them.

The government must find over $5.3 billion this year to repay maturing external debt, including $3 billion to the IMF and $2 billion to Russian state bank VTB. Bad enough but there is worse:  Ukrainian companies and banks too have hefty debt maturities this year. Total external financing needs– corporate and sovereign – amount to $58 billion, analysts at Capital Economics calculate. That’s a third of Ukraine’s GDP and makes a default of some kind very likely. The following graphic is from Capital Economics.

In normal circumstances Ukraine — and Ukrainian companies — could have gone to market and borrowed the money. Quite a few developing countries such as Lithuania recently tapped markets, others including Jamaica plan to do so. Ukraine’s problem is its refusal to toe the IMF line.  Agreeing to the IMF’s main demand to lift crippling gas subsidies would unlock a $15 billion loan programme, giving  access to the loan cash as well as to global bond markets. But removing subsidies would be political suicide ahead of elections in October.  And with the sovereign frozen out of bond markets, Ukrainian companies too will find it hard to raise cash.

There’s oil in them thar wealth funds

Some interesting new data on sovereign wealth funds from State Street Global Advisors, a huge fund firm that does a lot of business with them. Most interesting, perhaps, is that the vast majority of sovereign wealth fund money comes from oil and gas revenues rather than from countries building up large foreign reserves from other trade, eg China.

    – The U.S. firm identified 37 major sovereign wealth funds worth a total of $3 trillion. – More than two-thirds, or 70 percent, of that money came from oil and gas interests. – Of the 37, all had at least $3 billion in assets. – Eight of them had more than $100 billion. – Only 13 of the 37 funds were not based on commodity wealth. – Asia had the largest number of SWFs at 13. – The 10 funds based in the Middle East had nearly half the wealth, or 46 percent, between them.

These funds, incidentally, are becoming more like mainstream investment companies by the day. State Street says they are eventually going to turn into the equivalent of large public sector pension funds and could well start becoming more active as shareholders in companies in which they invest.

Is it time for a Scottish wealth fund?

Oxford SWF Project, a university think tank on sovereign wealth funds, is looking at reports that the latest entry in the field could be Scotland. The project has a new post about the Scottish government floating the idea of an oil stabilisation fund to use oil and gas revenues.  It cites Scottish cabinet secretary for finance John Swinney looking abroad gleefully:

“We want to harness the benefit of oil revenues now for future years. An oil fund can provide greater stability, protect our economy and support the transition to a low carbon economy. Norway’s oil fund is worth over £200 billion – despite the first instalment being made as recently as the mid 1990s – and Alaska’s oil fund even gives money back to its citizens every year.”

The SWF project reckons the idea is a good one, but wonders if something other than meets the eye is at play. It had two questions.

More than a nice-to-have, buy-side considers its actions

More than a “nice to have,” investor sentiment is running heavily on the side of environment, social and governance (ESG) factors, according to the latest Thomson Reuters Perception Snapshot.

Feedback from 25 global buy-side investors found that 84 percent evaluate ESG criteria to some degree when making an investment decision.

The remaining 16 percent say ESG issues are not considered until a company’s ability to generate high returns is hindered by these factors.

Will Spain face Russian ire for snubbing LUKOIL’s Repsol bid?

If Lithuania’s experience is anything to go by, Spain may regret its declaration that it would rather Russian oil company LUKOIL did not buy a major stake in its largest refiner, Repsol.

  

Russian oil company LUKOIL is in talks to buy around 30 percent of Repsol, one of Western Europe’s five largest non-government controlled oil companies by market value, sources close to the matter say. Analysts think the move could be a prelude to a full takeover, which would be the largest overseas acquisition by a Russian company.

 

Spain‘s Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said on Tuesday he would prefer a different buyer. Rubalcaba didn’t say why LUKOIL was persona non grata in Madrid but analysts think the company’s nationality is the reason.

What next for OMV, and for MOL?

omv-ceo.jpgFollowing an acrimonious and drawn-out takeover battle for Hungary’s MOL, Austrian oil and gas group OMV finally did as expected: it threw in the towel.

Yet according to OMV Chief Executive Wolfgang Ruttenstorfer, the consolidation pressures in central Europe — the strategic rationale which prompted him to launch the unsolicited offer in the first place — remain in place.

Analysts and investors have often pointed out that OMV could do better with the cash then parking it in a MOL stake. And while OMV sat tight and awaited the outcome of its unwanted approach, MOL busied itself stringing together a network of strategic allies, entering into ventures with Cez from the Czech Republic and Oman’s OOC.